February 15, 2019

By Morten Jensen

As the Chicago Bulls surrendered a 17-point lead, only to outscore New York 31-8 in the fourth quarter, another storyline surfaced in Chicago: Bobby Portis.

The 20-year old rookie has been given an opportunity of late after Joakim Noah’s shoulder injury, and Fred Hoiberg now faces a wonderful problem when Noah returns, which is how to keep his rookie big man in the rotation. Because as it stands now, Portis isn’t just one of the better big men on the roster, he’s one of the better players.

Portis is averaging 9.1 points and 4.7 rebounds a game after his 16 point, 10 rebound performance against the Knicks, but more than his statistical output, the rook offers a game that fits the new era of basketball, which the Bulls have struggled to adapt to in recent years.

The Bulls fourth quarter success against New York was in many ways a turning point for Chicago when Hoiberg decided to forego Pau Gasol and instead run with Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Jimmy Butler, and E’Twaun Moore. As a result, the Bulls had more spacing than ever, and New York didn’t have an answer to their ball-movement and court-stretching.

The Knicks actually looked locked in during the second and third quarters, making correct defensive reads and not rushing shots. They even took the lead momentarily, but ended up on a milk carton after the third. The back-breaker was Mirotic’s ridiculous pull-up from about 35 feet with nine seconds remaining on the shot clock. That bomb brought the house down and was followed by three triples by McDermott to close off Chicago’s most entertaining game in years, as McDermott himself outscored the Knicks 11-8 in the final 12 minutes.

Going back to Portis, it needs mentioning that 11 games and 176 minutes is naturally an awfully small sample size. Nevertheless, the production in those 176 minutes have been encouraging. He takes 0.48 shots per minute, has a REB% of 15, and carries a USG% of 26.9. His level of activity is refreshing given Chicago’s frequency of relying on defense-first players to shoot, or Pau Gasol. Don’t get me wrong, Gasol is a fine player, but he doesn’t shoot triples, he doesn’t give the same effort defensively, and his rebounds are for the most part uncontested as he carries a Contested REB% of just 32.6, lower than the likes of Tobias Harris, Rudy Gay, and P.J. Tucker.

Portis, for all his exuberance, still has ways to go, but he’s breathed new life into Chicago’s stalled progress, and it appears to rub off on the youngsters, as well as Fred Hoiberg who after the game more or less guaranteed the rookie minutes from here on out. Portis himself is just glad to have worked hard enough to get on the floor.

Truth In A Blowout

Roy Hibbert, Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix Suns
(Photo: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports)

By Will Reeve

On paper this game should have been a toss up as the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers met Sunday at Staples Center, with their combined 20 wins in tow. What ensued was anything but the expected narrative, as the Suns labored their way through an embarrassing blowout loss.

Even in a blowout that saw polar opposite results and effort, some concerning similarities were revealed between these two squads to those with a keen eye.

The Suns found themselves setting a franchise record for ineptitude while the Lakers netted their largest lead (38 points) in a game Kobe Bryant didn’t play in since 1996, en route to their 20-point victory. In fact, the Lakers hadn’t had a lead of 23 points or more in any game since Dec. 30, 2014. The numbers alone are staggering, but it was how both teams went about achieving their respective final scores (97-77) and what was revealed about each that was just as shocking.

Phoenix was haggard, disorganized, disinterested off the ball, and hasty on offense. They were slow to rotate on defense, didn’t communicate, execute nor display any semblance of passion on court. To put it simply, they looked lost and indifferent about being in an NBA game much of the night.

The Lakers happily took full advantage in holding them to a franchise worst–and the lowest total in the NBA this season–22 points in the first half. The Suns had more turnovers than field goals until there was less than one minute left in the first half, and didn’t hit their first three-point shot until there was 2:20 left in the third quarter.

In short, they inexplicably made the Lakers matador defense look like a juggernaut for much of the game.

After firing assistant coaches Mike Longabardi and Jerry Sichting one week ago due to the team’s performance, many wondered why head coach Jeff Hornacek was spared. The Suns front office displayed a level of commitment to their coach that his players appear to not have. When your team has lost nine games in a row and lacks effort and passion, even after a coaching shakeup like that, it’s only a matter of time before fans start overtly clamoring and chanting for the coach’s head as well.

Credit goes to the Lakers for not playing down to the Suns’ level, which is very easy to do when you have their type of record (8-27). For much of the night they were the true antithesis of their opponents in all the right ways as they notched their third straight victory for the first time this year.

Lou Williams scored 30 points on 64 percent shooting while grabbing seven rebounds. Larry Nance Jr. played with incredible energy as he so often does and grabbed a career-high tying 14 rebounds for the second straight game. Jordan Clarkson facilitated with seven assists while limiting his turnovers. Even Roy Hibbert produced a rousing dunk that included a shot fake and fake pass on the way to the rim. On the sideline the bench went Monmouth University on the Suns as Nick Young was spotted being mock resuscitated by a teammate after a thunderous Clarkson dunk over a helpless Alex Len.

However, it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the Lakers as Julius Randle again was the recipient of reduced minutes and displayed his frustration openly.

Randle only played 16 minutes but still was able to grab 12 rebounds via his constant tenacity and effort; which interestingly are the two things that have been openly questioned and inexplicably maligned by Scott in his young players, including Randle. Both Randle and D’Angelo Russell (21 minutes) were spotted avoiding some coach’s huddles likely due to their apparent frustration with the coach.

Scott has made a practice of openly chastising his young players to the media repetitively in a fashion and manner that we’ve never seen before. His dissemination of minutes remains a mystery to both players and fans alike.

Thus, while the Lakers were the resounding and jubilant victors on this night overall — many questions remain in Los Angeles regarding their head coach and his ability to reach his players.

In that way, these two teams couldn’t be any more similar, and even on a lopsided night, these worrisome similarities found their way to the forefront for those who were watching closely.

Danny Green Awakens

Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs
(Photo: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports)

By Jesse Blanchard

Danny Green and the San Antonio Spurs have always had a symbiotic relationship. The shooting guard provides room for his teammates to operate, and in return, they supply him with the shots he struggles to create for himself.

For years, Green has functioned as something of a barometer for the Spurs’ motion-heavy offense. When the ball is freely flowing, and the system right, Green is a devastating off-ball threat.

When the ball sticks, and the offense sputters, Green’s statistical output plummets.

This season, the Spurs have a new team with a different offensive hierarchy–which can be trouble for a player so reliant and in-tune with the old one. Shooters are creatures of habit, and in the Spurs’ new post and isolation-prominent attack, Green has had to adjust to an entirely different way of getting his shots. The lanes through which he navigated his off-ball choreography have fundamentally changed, warped to accommodate the addition of LaMarcus Aldridge, and Kawhi Leonard’s (22 points, six rebounds, two assists) new status.

Even as the Spurs’ offense has soared, he’s remained largely disconnected–shooting 32.5 percent from the three-point line–leaving Green to fend for himself.

“I haven’t said a word to him,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He comes in and shoots, practices. You have to participate in your own recovery.”

Aptly nicknamed “Icy Hot,” Green is no stranger to the peaks and valleys of a streaky jumper. But never before has he suffered a shooting slump that extended through the end of December.

“Probably the longest, for sure,” Green said after practice on New Year’s Eve. “And yet, a couple of them were right there. Just got to stay with it mentally, not think about the last one, and take the next with confidence.” 

Of course, the defense of one James Harden is as good a remedy for season-long shooting slumps as any. On the Spurs’ first possession of the game, Tony Parker found Green alone in the corner, nailing the open three. And as the Houston Rockets continued to smother the Spurs’ offense with their dual-big alignment of Dwight Howard and Clint Capela, it was Green’s shooting that allowed San Antonio to overcome sloppy transition defense and cheap fouls.

Green hit four of his five three-point attempts in the first quarter, sending his teammates rushing to celebrate him during a stoppage of play, and convincing Popovich to forgo his natural rotation–pulling Leonard in the first quarter instead.

You see, though his shooting slump was something Green had to work out for himself, it was never something he had to go through alone.

“Every time you have a teammate not making shots, or not feeling great, you want to help him,” Manu Ginobili (eight points, five assists) said. “You want to give him open shots, open looks. So when he made the first four-out-of-five, it was a great lift for the whole team.”

Green scored 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting from deep, filling out the rest of the box score with four rebounds, three steals, three assists, and a block. With every make, Green’s body language sharpened, his confidence bolstered, until he was once again shooting over the top of fast closeouts and pulling up for three in transition.

“It’s great to see him get his rhythm back. Hopefully this helps to get him out of the shooting slump,” Ginobili said. “Even with all that, he’s important for us because of his defense and energy.”

Will Barton And The Warriors

Will Barton, Denver Nuggets
(Photo: Kyle Terada – USA TODAY Sports)

Chaos breeds opportunity, and through most of his young NBA career, Will Barton has been lost in his own brand of chaos–deemed untrustworthy due to a poor shot and even poorer shot selection.

Down two in the closing seconds of regulation against the Golden State Warriors, rather than break into a structured set after a timeout, Barton turned down a screen in delayed transition, blowing past his defender before the Warriors’ defense could set. In the past, Barton may have played at a speed too fast to harness his drive. The difference, this year, is that he’s in control of the chaos he creates more often than not.

Instead of taking a direct route to the rim–which likely would have been contested or blocked by a recover Andre Iguodala–Barton veered off slightly to the left, slowing down just enough for Iguodala to catch up. And then, using Iguodala’s momentum against him, Barton gave a simple fake and step-through to tie the game on a short shot off the glass.

Recently, our own Joshua Riddell highlighted Barton’s improvement:

While part of his success can be attributed to the higher level of comfort he has shooting with NBA defenders running at him, he’s made significant strides in his shooting motion to help improve his accuracy. He’s shooting with a higher release point and more arc on the shot to give himself a better chance of converting. These shooting tweaks manifest themselves at the free throw line as well, where he has improved from a 76 percent shooter to 85 percent this season.

Barton has the ability to run the offense as a point guard or play off the ball in a more traditional shooting guard role. The Nuggets have moved him off the ball more which turns many of the tough pull-up jump shots he was forced into in Portland into more efficient catch and shoot opportunities. After attempting just 1.1 catch and shoot shot per game last season, he has seen that rise to 3.5 per game, a more significant percentage of his overall shot attempts. Instead of forcing contested shots off the dribble, Barton has improved his decision making and is taking better shots that are more in the flow of the offense.

This improvement in perimeter shooting has opened the door for his penetration skills and ability to finish around the rim, a skill he was known for coming into the league. He loves to get out in transition, knifing his way into the paint to create a look for himself, where he finishes at 61 percent according to Basketball-Reference. He’s improved his handle and his quick first step and ball skills allows him to assess the defense and find the best way to the rim. Despite his skinny frame, he welcomes physical play in the lane and can convert through contact, as evident by his 13 And-1 opportunities, according to Basketball-Reference.

The improvements to his skill set have afforded Barton more options, but it’s his larger grasp on the rhythms of the game that have made the difference. And while Barton may have struggled from the field (21 points on 8-for-25 shooting), it was his energy and contributions elsewhere (13 rebounds, seven assists) that helped the Nuggets stage a frenetic comeback.

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